|Congress Voting Independence by Edward Savage circa 1800.|
Today is America’s great patriotic holiday. We call it the Fourth of July, or just the Fourth. But that is just a date. The official Federal holiday is called Independence Day in celebration of the adoption of the document that proclaimed separation from England, its King, and Parliament. The Fourth was the date that wrangling over the wording of the document was completed and the final draft was dispatched to the printer. The actual vote to approve independence had been cast by the Continental Congress two days earlier, July 2, 1776 and John Adams, the prime mover of the resolution believed that was the date which would be marked and celebrated.
|The committee to draft an Independence resolution at work. Left to right Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.|
The soaring rhetoric of what we now call the Declaration of Independence was crafted mostly by young Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson, a member of a committee that included Adams, senior sage Benjamin Franklin, plus Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut—the latter two contributing almost nothing to the work. Jefferson was wounded to the quick that Congress slashed almost a quarter of his verbiage, including passages decrying the slave trade. But his words still had undeniable power. As soon as a messenger could gallop to Massachusetts, General George Washington had them read to the assembled troops laying siege to British-held Boston.
The document began:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
|The Declaration of Independence as first printed and circulated as a broadside.|
After serving it purpose, the Declaration had no further legal importance. None of its noble sentiments had the force of law. Neither the Constitution, which formed our present government structure and was adopted years later after the conclusion of the lengthy Revolutionary War, nor the Bill of Rights made mention of them. In practice the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were severely limited and did not include at first even non-propertied citizens, let alone women, children, and slaves—all of whom were chattel of their masters—or the Native peoples with whom they shared the continent.
But Jefferson’s words would not go away and would time and again become a call to “the better angels of our Nature” in the words of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln famously drew inspiration from the document in the Gettysburg Address and in his Emancipation Proclamation, just as the ladies at Seneca Falls had paraphrased them in their Declaration of Sentiments on the Rights of Women. They would inspire abolitionists, the labor movement, Suffragists, the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for lesbian/gay/transgender rights, as well as other peoples across the globe. Slowly, and at great sacrifices and often bloody cost Jefferson’s vision of liberty has become wider and more inclusive.
Some conservative intellectuals recognizing the power of the inspiration now argue that the words were mere convenient propaganda of the moment and that only the “clear language and original intent” of the Constitution— meaning a government of, by, and for white propertied males—should bind society. So far that is a distinctly minority view, but present events show it is gaining traction.
Speaking of original intent, many Americans don’t have a clear understanding of what the Founders meant by Independence. We think of it as the national independence of a nation state called the United States of America. The Delegates saw it as a declaration by 13 united sovereign states, here-to-fore colonies, in a loose alliance. Not a single delegate thought that they were creating a united nation and no state legislature would have approved of a document that made the claim.
|The emergency of an already underway revolutionary war necessitated some cooperation among the former colonies as advocated by this famous political cartoon. But the reluctant snake was not really whole or healthy.|
The minimal government overseen by the Continental Congress had almost no power over the states. It could only beg money to keep an Army in the field and could pass few laws binding over its member states. After the adoption of the documents only marginally more authority was granted under the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and its ratification by the States in 1781.
For its part the English Crown and Parliament likewise considered each of its rebellious colonies a unique entity and on that basis refused to treat with representatives of Congress until the French entered into the conflict and turned it into a literal world war threatening to bleed and bankrupt the United Kingdom.
After the war was finally over the Articles proved too weak to perform basic functions including facilitating trade between the member states which were levying internal tariffs against one another. It also could not raise the considerable money needed to retire the enormous war debt—much of it owed to former soldiers and suppliers to the Army as well as bond holders both here and in Europe. After much wrangling and anguish, the states ceded some authority to a new government under the Constitution. But there was still not much sense of a National identity. Most people considered themselves citizens of their states.
|Many historians credit Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for re-establishing the Declaration of Independence as a foundational national document and identifying it to with an indivisible nation.|
It took decades for the interdependence of the states to begin to take hold—and that was mortally tested by sectional differences over slavery and the eventual Civil War. Most historians now believe that the United States finally consolidated as a nation at gun point after the great national conflagration. Two World Wars, the Cold War, and eventual national prosperity helped create a widely embraced national identity that we celebrate with much flag waving on the Fourth of July.
But even today, not everyone thinks it is a great idea—ask the League of the South, libertarian neo-confederate think tanks, and the rise of some of the new so-called Alt-right.
In the long run, probably more serious is the consequence of the globalization of the economy and the information revolution of the World Wide Web and computerization which many economists and futurists believe is rendering the old concept of national independence obsolete and perhaps even threatens the viability of nation states as the dominant institutions of the world.
The future is now for many globalists. Instantaneous communications; rapid transportation connections on land, sea, and air; and the trading system that has evolved since the end of World War II all mean that manufacturing will move wherever production costs—mostly labor—is the cheapest and natural resources compete in a global market requiring economies of scale. This has already destroyed the semi-autonomous economies of many nation states and redealt the wealth cards. There are winners and losers in this process, but both critics and enthusiastic supporters of the new system believe that it is mostly inevitable.
In this scenario, various international connections—treaty and trade agreements, transnational organizations from the United Nations to regional groupings like the European Union, banking and economic groups like the International Monetary Fund, and Non-Governmental Organizations of many types largely supplant national governments. Developments like Bitcoin and other currency alternatives even detach the world economy from the Dollar, Euro, Yen, Ruble and other national currencies.
|A widely circulated anti-globalism meme.|
Optimists hope that this interdependent world, after natural birth pangs, will result in a fairer and more equitable distribution of wealth across the globe and ultimately raise the standard of living to billions while curbing the hoarding of wealth by rich nations, most notably the United States.
Pessimists fear instead that a libertarian global free market will turn into a Hobbesian war of all against all with an unaccountable oligarchy gaining the vast majority of benefits and most of the power.
The rise of populist nationalism represented by Donald Trump in the U.S; by forces in Europe where Brexit triumphed in Britain; neo-fascist governments in the Philippines, Turkey, Poland and other former Soviet satellites or republics; and Brazil are a direct result of resistance to the trend of global interdependence. It turns out people want not only economic protection for their narrow self-interest, but also to preserve their very identities which are defined by ethnicity, language, religion, and culture. They want to insure national independence.
Meanwhile the world is engulfed in crises—out of control climate change and a global pandemic—that can only be addressed by global cooperation, the essence of interdependence.
This should not be and cannot be an either/or choice. The metaphor of choice is a magnet with its north and south polls which cannot exist without each other. The world will have to find way to be both/and—both independent and interdependent. There will be tensions and stress, but the alternatives are just choices of dystopian nightmares.